The “others” – Greece’s forgotten refugee population

Story by Sophie Cannon ·

This post can also be found at https://nujournalismingreece2017.wordpress.com/2017/06/12/the-others-greeces-forgotten-refugee-population/

OINOFYTA, Greece – United Nations tents and isoboxes are scattered around the grounds, shoeless boys play soccer in dimly lit halls and seemingly happy murals decorate the walls of families on boats. But on close inspection, the people are actually painted as ghosts, lost at sea.

Inside the refurbished factory building-turned-camp, the daily lives of the refugees unfold. A communal kitchen anchors the space, hallways branching off into one-room living spaces and community rooms. This appears to be the image of the refugee crisis straight out of news reports, broadcast to the world since 2015. But this is not what the world has come to know as the Syrian crisis. These are the others – from countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

A mural painted by one of the child residents of the camp, depicting those who were lost on the journey from Afghanistan to Greece.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

The Oinofyta refugee camp, located about an hour north of Athens, is home to 500 refugees mainly from Afghanistan, with 5 percent from Iran and 5 percent from Pakistan. These refugees have fought through war-torn lands and sailed across the same seas, and yet, because of their nationality, they are often not given refugee status in Greece.

The UN classifies a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.” However, even though there is ongoing war or conflict in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, the individuals who show up on the shores of Greece are not given that title. Instead they are defined as economic migrants and asylum seekers, all labels that can result in deportation back to their home countries.

“They are not from a country [where] there is peace,” said Ehsan Labib from the United Afghans Community in Greece. “The only difference between Syria and Afghanistan is the difference in the war. In Afghanistan there are suicide bombs, ISIS, the Taliban. There is not safety.”

Afghanistan is currently an unsafe country due to the presence of the Taliban, an Afghan terrorist group. Many of the Oinofyta residents have been personally targeted by the Taliban, condemned to death through letters they received from the group before they fled.

One of those residents who could not give her name due to the Taliban’s call for her death, has been hiding in the camp with her children. Her father was murdered by the Taliban and they have since put out a call for the death of his extended family.

“These people are in even more in danger because they are targeted individually,” said Lisa Campbell, executive director of Do Your Part and project manager of Oinofyta. “About 50 percent are being targeted individually. But if you are running from the Taliban and can’t feed your children, then you are not safe.”

The targeted woman cannot read or write and is currently trying to meet her brother in another European country, a process called reunification. The Afghans that arrived before May 20, 2016, still qualify for family reunification. Any who arrived after are not afforded that option due to the EU – Turkey deal of March 18 that same year.

 

There have been 229 Afghans who have come through Greece looking for asylum in 2015, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, the 500 residents of the Oinofyta camp, which opened in May of 2016, suggests there are far more than the government and UNHCR report.

“They are treated as second-class refugees,” Campbell said. “Nothing will get better until the UN grants them refugee status.”

Oinofyta is staffed by volunteers from Do Your Part, a non-profit organization that started as a response to Hurricane Katrina and now does humanitarian work all over the world.

“I knew nothing about how a refugee camp is supposed to run, so I built a community,” Campbell said.“We have 500 people now and have gone as high as 756. The camp is capped at 600 now, but I doubt it will get that high again.”

However, because of their non-Syrian status, refugees are stuck in the slow-moving process of asylum and many have been sent back to their home country, where danger awaits them.

In May 2016, Skype phone lines were created for a pre-registration process. Displaced people call into the Skype account and once answered by an Asylum Service Office, a number is handed out, like a ticket at a deli counter, to wait for an appointment for an asylum interview. Again, this process treats Syrians and non-Syrians differently.

“Syrians had their dates set and interviews within a month,” Campbell said. “The ‘others’ were eight, nine, 10 months away. Some are just now having their interviews. Not one Pakistani has gotten through the Skype lines until one month ago.”

Lisa Campbell at her desk in her air-conditioned isobox office. She holds daily office hours here, and it is the base of operations for the running of the camp. The walls are decorated with gifts from residents.
Photo by Hsiang-Yu Wu

Receiving a number is only the first step to becoming legal. The number grants the status of asylum seeker, not the refugee status that affords more benefits. The real test is passing the asylum seeker interview, held all over Greece at various embassies and government buildings. But first, waiting.

“You can wait for six months, sometimes nine months,” Labib said. “Then they give the answer and if the result is positive, the next thing they give you is permits and paperwork. If the result is negative, they give you two chances. You have to apply once again, and if you don’t in about two months or 60 days, you must leave this country.”

Some gain asylum and some are unfortunately sent back to camps or worse, to their home country. Oinofyta camp resident Elias, 25, and his brother, 21, both from Afghanistan, sought asylum and were afforded different answers.

“I came with my brother and he is still on Lesbos,” he said through a translator. “When he went to asylum review, they sent him back to Lesbos and me here. I was sick so they let me stay because I had a knife wound. I asked to stay here, in Greece.”

Unlike Elias, when it comes to asylum location preference, many want to be anywhere but Greece. They pay smugglers to help them and their families cross the many borders between their home country, Greece and their final destination.

“Any place is better than here. For living, for studying, everything,” said Salim, 25, a resident from Afghanistan in the Oinofyta camp. “I came by foot, by car, by boat, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iran and Turkey to Greece. We stayed in the mountains, the deserts, any place. It cost about 9,000 euro (about $10,000) to the smugglers, I sold my car.”

Even if all goes well and refugees receive a number, go to their interview and get approved for asylum, unlike the structural programs in place for Syrian refugees in other countries, there are no services available to Afghans or others.

“Once you’ve been granted asylum, there are programs for integration,” Campbell said. “Greece doesn’t have that process in place yet. They don’t qualify, according to the UN, for relocation and they can only apply for asylum in Greece. They pay smugglers to get them out.”

Because of this, many of the residents of Oinofyta have given up in trying to get out of the camp and Greece as a whole, and unless they use a smuggler to get them out of the country, when the camp eventually closes they will have nowhere to go. Campbell predicts the camp will close within the next year or so, saying that on average, only about 1 percent of residents get resettled.

This is coming all too soon for many of the residents, as they arrived less than one year ago from the most dangerous and exhausting journeys of their lives. When resident Parsa Qavami, 46, from Iran, came to the shores of Greece, his journey was not an easy one. Originally trying to get to Italy, Qavami ended up on the shores of Greece and found himself in prison there.

Parsa Qavami, pictured in front of the camp. His family was left behind and they plan on following when he finds a more permanent refuge. He is one of the few Iranians in residence at Oinofyta.
Photo by Bradley Fargo

“We spent eight or nine days in the police station,” Qavami said. “One day we were taken to the hospital for blood tests and then 35 people were set free. Myself and four friends were then sent to the central jail. I still don’t know why I was in jail for six months.”

He described the jail as unbearable. “We were forced to eat breakfast during lunch, lunch was at 4, and dinner at 11 to 12 so we wouldn’t be hungry when we woke up,” he said. “When we would say we were sick, we wrote it down but they were lying and they wouldn’t give it to the doctors. Because of the jail, I ended up with a stomach issue…I had developed a growth on my liver. I don’t know how I got it but they told me it was from contact with dogs, but I had never touched a dog so I don’t know. It was maybe because of the drinking water in the prison.”

Once a self-employed backgammon set maker and award-winning body builder, Qavami is one of the few Iranians at the camp, and with his focus on his family back home, he has little time for grievances or friendships.

“I try to not make friends or talk to anyone,” he said. “The majority comes here to stay. Here, for some people is like paradise but for me and with the way I think and the life I had, it’s not.”

As a part of this community, both Campbell and Labib try and make the lives of the Afghans in Greece as productive as possible. In Oinofyta, there is a fully staffed tailor shop, a hair salon, a workshop and a garden. In the United Afghan Community in Greece, Labib makes it his goal to show just how educated and helpful the Afghan refugees can be, if given the chance.

“We have two goals,” Labib said. “We want to show this country that these refugees that come here, they were doctors, they were engineers, they were teachers. The second thing we want to do is to make opportunities for these Afghans so they can do something here, in Greece.”

Regardless of whether the 500 residents of Oinofyta or the thousands of Afghans in the country decide to stay in Greece or apply for asylum in another European country, Labib makes it clear that the only way to really help the refugees is to stop separating them  into categories.

“Thousands is thousands. If the Europeans countries want to help the refugees, they must not make a difference between Syria and Afghanistan,” Labib said. “When we give bread to someone who is hungry, we must give for two. Right now, the Afghan refugees and the Syrian refugees, both of them are hungry, and we cannot give bread to one and not to the other one.”

Advertisements

Scrambling the Patriarchy

As the title of this blog hopefully suggests, this post is about eggs.

Last night, after working in the hotel for the past few days (check out my latest story here and stay tuned for my next one coming soon), I decided it was about time to check out the night life in Athens.

Thessaloniki, despite being criticized by some of my friends here, provided some of the best nights out. Sure, there were some nights that we didn’t find a good club and ended up at a smoke-filled bar, they were still fun, safe and for the sake of this post, egg-free.

Back to last night, after leaving a cool underground bar with an amazing bar tender, Olivia, Luke, Isaac, Paxtyn, Gwen and I were walking around the neighborhood when all of a sudden…

**CRACK*

An egg flew from the open window of a car full of hoodlum boys racing past us. The egg in question rocketed straight into my ribcage, leaving an oblong-shaped bruise and more importantly, putting a rotten mood on my night. (Rotten egg, get it?)

It’s not the egg itself that bothered me. It’s the fact that I no longer felt safe in a neighborhood that I was here to explore and make my own. We continued on our path, determined to barhop, but the whole time I felt uneasy (or over easy…? Can’t help but make a few egg puns. They crack me up.)

The next day, Asia and I took the subway down to the marketplace to scope out some street art and find a new angle for her story. On the way back, not only did I get stared at and was the unfortunate recipient of once-over glances from a very creepy 60+ year old man, the eggs made another appearance.

Standing in front of a convenience store of all places, on our way home from our night of graffiti and chocolate cake, the now familiar sound of boys yelping and the deafening *CRACK* of, yes, another egg, came whizzing towards us, crashing into the pavement by our feet and splattering our shoes with yoke.

This time, all we could do was crack up (sorry, did it again).

Since I have been here, I have definitely noticed the apparent sexism and creepiness of the men here after about 7 p.m.. Sadly, sexism is something that all women, no matter the country, deal with daily. In the field of journalism, that may mean that a interviewee may not talk to you or speak in a demeaning way. It means only going out in groups, preferably with a man and not a group of two girls. It means returning by sundown and not wearing shorts, despite the 85 degree weather.

Here, I guess it means getting an unwanted omelette pitched at you at 50 mph from a car full of immature boys.

I can laugh about it now. (Come on Greece, you are in an economic crisis and you are wasting perfectly good breakfast food?!) But in all seriousness, it can feel pretty gross sometimes to be a target of anything from catcalls on the streets (so far its been about 20+ times) to the fear of being egged every time I leave the hotel.

Boys, didn’t your mom ever tell you not to play with your food? Calm down, make an omelette and take a break from being obnoxious. I’m egghausted.

Despite Lack of Change, Greeks Take to Streets in Protest

By Sophie Cannon, David Harbeck and Bradley Fargo

full story with photo slideshow and video can be viewed at nujournalismingreece2017.wordpress.com

THESSALONIKI, Greece – At a four-way intersection on a usually busy Greek street in downtown Thessaloniki, traffic has stopped for what appears to be a job fair for the disillusioned. Workers from all sectors of the economy, equipped with painted signs and flags, chant their grievances toward the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace, a towering four-story mansion also known as the “Government House of Thessaloniki.”

A band of Coca-Cola workers stands behind a sign saying, “We don’t drink Coke anymore.” They face the accounting union group, also protesting the government, but for the lack of healthcare. A union of clothing store workers is opposite them, making up yet another piece to the jigsaw puzzle that was the 24-hour May 17 nationwide labor strike. The unrest stems from the upcoming May 18 vote in Parliament on new austerity measures that would cut pensions and raise taxes on Greek people.

“We protest whenever we have to. It’s a chance to show every day what is possible. It is something for every worker,” said Giorgkas, 34, a member of the Organization of Communist Internationalists in Greece, who attended three protests this week. “You have to support it in a country with such high unemployment, but people are not participating as much.”

While one group shakes the gates of the government building, a young woman spraypaints “resistance and worker control” in Greek on the building’s outer barrier. Amid the chaos, Dimitrios Giogkas stands in the center of the street, occasionally echoing the shouts of a protester leading a call-and-response chant.

In the past week in Thessaloniki, there have been two other protests at Kamara, a famous square in the heart of downtown, leading up to the labor strike. “Tomorrow night after the vote I will be here again,” said Giorgkas, who works in a local bookstore.

The European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have imposed strict austerity measures, such as budget cuts and pension caps, on Greece’s government in an attempt to rescue the country from its ongoing government debt crisis. The crisis began in 2010, with the country’s troubles stemming from the 2008 worldwide financial crisis.

A woman paints a banner for a demonstration in Kamara Square, Thessaloniki.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

People in Greece are beginning to feel hopeless as the economic environment is showing little signs of improvement. Unemployment is at 23.2 percent, the highest in Europe, according to EU statistics. Youth unemployment is at 48 percent. These statistics coupled with the all-around economic turmoil in Greece have bred a culture of frequent protests and strikes.

It is no longer surprising for there to be six-month delays for Greek people to receive their paychecks. According to Georgios Anastasiades, an economist and adjunct professor at the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT), Greece has lost 50 percent of its income since the crisis. This frustration has caused workers to take to the streets almost daily, an option that was once powerful and is now a last resort.

“People are striking but not with particularly radical intentions,” Anastasiades said. “In the past, they thought they could do something. We have strikes without demonstrations. It’s supposed to be a strong weapon, now it’s at the drop of a hat.”

Large labor strikes, like the one on May 17 that attracted 6,000 people in Thessaloniki and 12,000 in Athens, according to published reports, happen a few times a year. In the past week alone there have been strikes by bus and ferry drivers, air traffic controllers, hospital workers and journalists. In addition to multiple labor unions across numerous industries, the May 17 strikes also saw participation from large numbers of communists and anarchists.

A protester leads call-and-response chants in the streets of Thessaloniki.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

“Greece is going through the most difficult [part] of its post-World War II period with dramatic consequences in various fields of the country’s social and economic life,” said Panagiotis Avramopoulos, the former president of the Trade Unions Center of Thessaloniki and member of the City Council of Thessaloniki since 2002. “Greeks are suffering [from] dramatic changes in their lives caused by the severe austerity measures. This difficult environment generates the need to protest.”

Since the crisis began, the constant strikes and marches have done little to nothing in terms of policy change and instead have disappointed and infuriated the people of Greece. The birthplace of democracy is now failing them.

“Many people nowadays are disillusioned, disoriented, disheartened by the fact that despite the protests, the outcomes they seek don’t always materialize,” said Maria Kyriakidou, the chair of Humanities and Social Sciences at ACT. “In 2012 you could find half a million people outside Parliament protesting. You won’t see these numbers anymore.”

Riot police stand outside the Turkish Consulate on May 12.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

Despite different governments voted into power since 2010, no party has been able to reverse the negative economic trends in Greece. The current party in power is the far-left Syriza party, but many people disassociated from the party in 2016 after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras agreed to an austerity package that significantly increased taxes and cut public spending.

“We believe in what we are doing. We are not out here for fun,” said Kalamara Garyfallia, the president of the clothing store workers’ union. “Left wing, right wing, we don’t care. We march whenever there is a law against us.”

Garyfallia is just one of thousands of the working class in Greece dissatisfied with the government. No matter the party that is in power, she said, the outcome is the same and no real changes are made to improve the lives of workers.

“Everyday life has been affected,” Garyfallia said. “It’s hard to make ends meet.”

Ioanna Katsarou is one example of a worker struggling to put food on the table for her family. “In many ways, we don’t have [what we need] to eat, don’t have [what we need] to pay the rent. It’s my right to have something to live, not [just] to survive,” said Katsarou, a native of Thessaloniki who attended the protest on May 17 with her husband. “I want to eat, to feed my children. I will fight for it today.”

Katsarou is a member of the Communist Party in Greece, and says that the community of like-minded thinkers that surrounds her is part of what makes her feel safe during the protests.

“I am here with persons that I understand and that understand me, so I feel at home,” she said.

The mob mentality usually associated with large protests and social groups like the anarchists and communists can serve as a family for disillusioned people. Despite differences in ideology, age, class and gender, the community aspect of protests have been sewn into a social fabric and developed into a protest culture of its own.

Workers dressed in their construction uniforms lead the May 17 protest down the street, followed by 6,000 other protesters from various groups.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

“Over the last years, protests rarely accomplish the reverse of negative and unpleasant developments,” said Avramopoulos, the Thessaloniki City Council member. “In any case, peaceful protests remain the lifeblood of our democracy.”

Gwendolyn Schanker also contributed to this report.

Anarchists, Communists and Stray Dogs.

There was a day not too long ago (May 11, but the days feel like years here) in which I felt like a full fledged journalist for the first time. All it took was around seven different groups of anarchists, communists and soap makers, a stray dog and an amazing group of talented journalists beside me.

To make most of that clearer, here is the not-so-brief retelling of how I went on my first photo assignment that turned into my first full-fledged reporting piece.

Originally, I had volunteered to accompany my friends and fellow reporters, David and Bradley, on their first reporting assignment. The idea was to cover protest culture and in Greece there are apparently daily protests. Thinking I would just be standing on the sidelines and taking a few pictures when/if we stumbled across a rally, I packed my camera and a notebook for work and then a book to read in the down time I assumed I had.

We eventually found a protest at 6 p.m. at the Arch of Galerius in the city and from there, my story gets wild.

In the city square, I was expecting to find a few dozen people to be holding protest signs and possibly a black-inflatable tube @DivestNU. We decided to be punctual and showed up at 5:59 for the 6:00 show, but we were surprisingly early, as only a few signs (like the one above) were taped up and not a lot of people were there.

Slowly, the area began to fill with people, each horde of around 20 carrying a different red, black and white sign. (What’s black and white and red/read all over? A group of Greek anarchists.)

Back in the states, anarchists and communists are viewed with a certain distaste, being associated with chaos and wrongdoings. And so I walked up to them and started chatting. We met some amazing people, and most of them were willing to talk, some sans a first name and even one with a pseudonym (and who also threw me shade, I’m not upset, it’s fine, whatever).

My favorite anarchist of the bunch is pictured below. Amidst the first part of the gathering, this pup was fast asleep on the ground in the dead center of the square. Little did we know, the dog picked his nap spot to be right in the middle of the action on purpose, as we later found out that even the strays in Greece are politically active.

After the weirdest gathering of anarchists, communists, anti-capitalists and a cool couple of German tourists petered out, they took to the streets and as journalists do, we followed…or at least we all tried to.

I had never photographed a protest before, as most of my main photo concerns are usually figuring out stage lighting and not getting sweat on by up-close performers at shows. Shooting a march was a whole other animal, but luckily I had my faithful animal right beside me the whole time. As I ran at full speed, camera bag swinging and probably looking ridiculous (thoughts David/Cody?) the dog followed us as I weaved in and out down the street and even crossed in front of the march at some points.

After walking what felt like the entire world, but most likely the length of the city, we made it to the end. The end being a weird and frankly ironic benefit concert type gathering. The anarchists formed a line to get in and the anti-capitalists reached into their wallets for the three euro admittance charge. Felling strange about going in, both the journalists and the stray took that as our cue to leave. That and the presence of riot police, but only as a courtesy to them (can’t scare me in Greece, po po, I’ll call Rebecca Fong.)

In all seriousness, being able to talk to anyone and everyone with the confidence of a real journalist was one of the biggest takeaways for me. I know I usually joke that I am “just a little freshie” and can be hard on myself, but in this moment, I jumped in and was reporting with the best of ’em. Behind the camera or out with my reporter’s notebook, I think I’ve found something worth doing that in turn makes me feel worth it too.

 

RIP Doggo. He didn’t die, I just miss him.